St Emilion’s class struggle

St Emilion's annual Ban des Vendanges, or parade to mark the start of the harvest.

St Emilion’s annual Ban des Vendanges, or parade to mark the start of the harvest.

Here is a cru whose terroir is modest rather than exceptional, finding itself elevated to the elite category of the four wines at the top of the premiership. In the lower half of that top division is a name for which the word cru seems inappropriate given that its vineyard location is somewhat elusive or even movable.

On the other hand, it is still possible to find a St Émilion proprietor whose wine commands a higher price than the majority of the top ten châteaux and yet resolutely declines to accept an invitation for promotion, preferring it would seem to rely on the judgement of his loyal clients rather than on the views of the Syndicat.

To some observers, classifications are of little interest and do not affect buying decisions in the least, but the question of their validity remains. Should wine be ranked as if it were a restaurant or football team – on the whim of a Michelin inspector or the fortunes of an oligarch – or is there merit in the idea that land itself, regardless of its ephemeral owners, is entitled to some recognition of its own?

If ranking is based upon human interference – the influence of external consulting oenologists and the techniques employed in the cellar – then it seems logical that vineyards should be subjected to annual inspection.

But do we want to treat vineyards like restaurants and base the ratings on those of inspectors? Surely not – for a restaurant can be simply relocated, while a vineyard site is permanent. If classification becomes a reflection of human interference, then the terroir game must be over.

That will be a matter of regret for those who value the potential for originality offered by a great wine. Let’s return to the cui bono question. The recent revision of St Émilion will no doubt do wonders for the egos of proprietors who find themselves promoted. However, along with the question of pride, there is also the question of price.

The promotion saw an instant upward revaluation of the wines in the marketplace. How many of the producers will pause to wonder how many of their previously loyal consumers will now admit defeat and feel priced out of the market – turning their attentions elsewhere? Clearly the speculative investor will be more interested by any reclassification than the consumer for whom drinking pleasure matters more than the asset value of the bottle.

The philosopher Montaigne, born near St Émilion, would have surely appreciated the irony of this situation, where a good wine becomes so expensive and so important that it succeeds brilliantly in alienating itself from a substantial section of its market. He would have mused from his viewpoint a few miles further east along the same calcareous côte that one should simply respect the classification, as long as the arbitrators leave winemakers in peace and respect their freedom of spirit.

And Montaigne would have added: “Si vous êtes roi, exigez que l’on s’incline devant vous…cependant n’y croyez pas!” In other words – those at the top of the tree should acknowledge the worship of their devotees without ever allowing it to go to their heads.

For a defence and explanation of the St Emilion reclassification from Alain Moueix, click here.

This article originally appeared in the drinks business December 2012 edition.

 

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